By Amy Wong
As Covid-19 rages across the world, lives have been upended, institutions left in panic and entire industries affected. From tourism to aviation, food and beverage to the creative industries – livelihood and normalcy desperately needed during this turbulent period have been snatched away.
So, what about those who do not have the luxury of privilege, representation, familial support networks or savings to tide through and adapt to this sudden recession? Marginalised groups like migrant workers, refugees and women and children across the globe have been some of the hardest hit. And Singapore is no different.
Singaporean filmmaker Jessica Lee says that “this pandemic has laid bare the stark contrast between the haves and have-nots.”
“When Covid-19 first struck Singapore, a conversation I had with my mentor brought up the situation facing sex workers. They were literally putting their lives on the line to survive during this period of time, yet their stories were largely left untold” she says.
It was this conversation says Jessica, which motivated her to amplify those stories. Through their own words, testimonies and lived experiences, Jessica hopes her upcoming documentary will“shine a light on the humanity of sex workers and unpack the realities they face”.
“I’ve always felt it’s important as a documentary filmmaker to use my work to shed light on the human condition, and the lives of those who may not feature in mainstream discourse” says Jessica.
Jessica is one of three winners of this year’s FreedomFilmFest (FFF) small film grant. Her film “The Shades of Love” will premiere at FFF following full production later this year.
Currently, Jessica wears multiple hats as a director, producer and writer at Beach House Pictures in Singapore. In recent years she has pitched over 100 programmes across multiple genres to global broadcasters including HBO, Netflix, Amazon Prime and National Geographic Channel.
At the background of this documentary is the reality of the sex industry in Singapore. The majority of sex workers in the country are migrant workers, who besides losing their entire income as a result of the pandemic, regularly face discrimination, harassment and violence.
Local non-profit The Project X cites harassment, physical assault and financial violence (e.g extortion, robbery, non-payment of service) as major issues facing the community.
“Although they are trying to make a living like anybody else, they are often discriminated against because of the work they do. Denying that sex work is real work leaves sex workers vulnerable to violence” they point out.
Vanessa Ho, Executive Director of The Project X says many sex workers do what they do to survive – to support their children, their parents, and themselves. “Due to the fact that most of their earnings go towards supporting their dependents, very few have any sort of savings, leaving them in a very vulnerable situation” she laments.
The Project X says they had a total of 68 applications to their Emergency Safety Net Programme during the height of the pandemic, which provided sex workers with direct financial aid and daily food deliveries.
She added that many workers have been trying to find alternative sources of income, but doing so has proven difficult for a number of reasons.She points out that some of the workers lack the necessary academic qualifications and/or formal work experience and that some are transgender and face discrimination when seeking for jobs.
In order to protect the identities and guarantee the anonymity of the workers lending their voices to the documentary, Jessica will rely on audio, as well as metaphorical visuals, graphics and montages to bring the voices to life.
“My hope as a filmmaker is that we understand the context upon which sex workers have chosen their profession, and more importantly, that they are more than just their profession. They are daughters, sisters, mothers, lovers, friends” says Jessica.
Production for “The Shades of Love” is currently underway…..
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The Freedom Film Network (FFN) is a not-for-profit body established to support and develop social filmmaking within the context of freedom of expression and values contained in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in Malaysia.